For ten years and more the Conservative party, which regards itself with some statistical justice to be the natural custodian of national government, has treated the nation’s capital as its unnatural foe.
As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a former two-term Mayor of the city, helped cement his reputation for opportunism and duplicity by feeding anti-London sentiment with “levelling up” signals, as his courtiers and cronies eroded the autonomy of his Labour successor at City Hall. The word “London” has been deployed much as a metaphor for things today’s Conservatives dislike.
But the roots of the Tories’ London problem go much deeper. At successive sets of elections – general, GLA and local – their few notable wins, including Johnson’s second mayoral triumph in 2012, have been isolated novelties amid a sustained swing towards Labour and others. At last year’s borough elections their share of seats fell to just 22 per cent compared with Labour’s 63. The most recent poll of Londoners’ general election voting intentions put Labour a gigantic 40 points ahead of them.
All the while, the pleas of a handful of realists for the party in London to find a distinctive voice with which to speak to the capital’s millions of voters – a voice more attuned to the majority of Londoners’ values, beliefs and desires – have gone unheeded. And now they’ve ended up with Susan Hall as their candidate for the next London Mayor election, scheduled for 2 May next year.
Let us begin with the formidable list of glaring, screaming, bellowing reasons why Hall’s selection, with 57 per cent of votes cast, looks disastrous for the Tories. Hall is nothing if not direct with her opinions. Past offerings on social media and elsewhere include egging on Donald Trump in his attacks on Sadiq Khan for the purpose of riling up his core support in the US. Right up until she decided to seek her party’s mayoral nomination just a few weeks ago, Hall’s main Twitter profile photo was of herself standing with Johnson, whom she continued to speak up for throughout the partygate scandal and beyond, even after his own MPs had dumped him.
A staunch backer of Brexit, Hall appears frequently on right wing television channels Talk TV and GB News, where she and like-minded programme hosts agree to heartily agree that Sadiq Khan is rubbish. When she was placed on the original Tory shortlist of three, GB News presenter Dan Wootton congratulated her on Twitter, embellishing his tweet with two union jacks. Yesterday, Hall hailed Wootton’s return to his show following a break, only to delete the tweet soon after.
That hurried row-back might not have been unrelated to the very adjacent publication of a story about Wootton by Byline Times that does little to enhance his reputation. As for Trump, having encouraged his supporters in their violent insurrection, he is now charged with serious criminal offences. To beat Khan, Hall will need to reach well beyond the shrinking London Tory base. It won’t help her that she has flattered so incautiously.
Hall styles herself a plain-speaking “common sense” politician, which is a retail way of saying she is firmly on her party’s populist hard right. She occupies the same ideological space as prominent national Tories such as her predecessor on the London Assembly Kemi Badenoch, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Conservative deputy chairman Lee Anderson. In the past, she has told a former UKIP councillor and deputy chair “we agree on most things“.
How did the Tories get themselves into this position? The received wisdom remains that minister for London Paul Scully was left off the shortlist because the party’s high command deemed his service in that role under PM Johnson tainted him beyond salvation. Yet, having also preferred a tech entrepreneur who had to drop out after a past alleged incident predictably came back to haunt him and an unknown barrister who comes across as a bit weird, they’ve ended up with a “Boris” apologist. What is going on inside their heads?
Does a politician of Hall’s leanings have a cat’s chance in hell of getting elected to City Hall? Judicious friends wryly suggested I headlined this piece “Hall selected, Khan rejoices” or even “Khan to win third term”. And, fair enough, another win for the Labour incumbent looks on the cards. Even if Voter ID and the government’s imposition of the First Past the Post system on the mayoral election assist the Tory cause, as the latter in particular looks likely to, can Hall hope to overcome such giant odds?
Not everything is stacked against her. Redfield & Wilton’s recent poll found that Khan’s lead over a then-theoretical Tory opponent was substantial but not enormous, and that 17 per cent of those who gave him their first preference vote in 2021 were either undecided about him now (10 per cent) or intended to vote Tory (seven per cent). Some will simply be bored with him after eight years. Some, like national journalists who haven’t been paying attention, will ask, rhetorically, “what’s he actually done?”
Hall’s targets will be clear and amenable to trenchant messaging: transport, especially roads and curbs on private motorists; crime and policing, where she will blast Khan’s record and promise to be “tough”; and housing, where she will rail against tower blocks and call for low-rise family homes instead. And it’s important to remember that although London is triumphantly liberal in its human variety, many Londoners are conservative on social issues, perhaps making them receptive to a culture war narrative against “woke” – something else that greatly exercises Hall. Even on Brexit, a hefty minority of Londoners – 40 per cent – voted leave.
We can expect Hall to be direct, abrasive and, with the help of Khan’s planned expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, perhaps to try to revive the “doughnut strategy” of speaking to outer London grievances that helped Johnson beat Ken Livingstone in 2008. She will make the most of being a woman and potentially the capital’s first female Mayor. She might end up doing better than current evidence suggests she will.
Doughnut country, though, is not as Tory as it was. Even borough strongholds like Bromley have seen threatening incursions by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Greater London’s own “blue wall” has weakened. On the face of it at least, Hall is the type of Tory least likely to rebuild it.